MARGAREE FORKS, Nova Scotia — Every October, two significant migrations take place on the Margaree River on Cape Breton Island, Nova Scotia.
The first consists of hundreds of Atlantic salmon, returning to their natal river to spawn after a year, or sometimes longer, spent in the ocean. Most of these salmon will traverse more than 1,000 miles on their journey home.
The other is made up of legions of anglers from all over the world who flock to the Margaree in the hopes of connecting with one of those Atlantic salmon.
Among them is Suzi Moore of Newburyport, Massachusetts, effortlessly throwing taut loops of line from her 13-foot, double-handed fly rod.
On the first evening of my weeklong trip to the Margaree, I sat on the riverbank and watched Moore and five other anglers fish a stretch of water on the lower portion of the river. Atlantic salmon were playfully leaping and porpoising throughout the pool, but neither Moore, an accomplished angler and champion bird-dog trainer, nor her fellow fishermen could persuade one to take a fly.
“That’s Atlantic salmon fishing,” Moore said with a smile.
Moore and her husband, Allen, a retired architect, fish all over the world each year. But every October since 1987, they have come back to the Margaree, staying at their cozy home on the river, where they each have a fly-tying desk. “The fishing on the Margaree is challenging but so interesting,” Moore said. “We love it up here.”
They are not alone.
I was here with my uncle, Charles Gaines, a writer from Birmingham, Alabama, and his friend Chris Child, an investment real estate broker from Holladay, Utah, staying in a family cabin perched on a meadow above the river. Gaines first fished the Margaree in 1978, Child in 1987. Since the early 2000s, the two men have been the mainstays of a rotating cast of anglers who spend an October week on the Margaree.
Gaines and Child are part of a long line of “from-aways” who have come here to fish since the 1930s. Among the first was the Brooklyn-reared Lee Wulff, a fly-fishing legend who landed his first Atlantic salmon here in 1933 and proclaimed the Margaree “my first love among salmon rivers.”
To be sure, there are easier places in the world to catch an Atlantic salmon. In Europe, Iceland, Russia and most other provinces in Canada, most salmon rivers are private, and thus offer solitude and many more fish. Those luxuries come at a steep cost, though. A prime week at the Atlantic Salmon Reserve on Russia’s Kola Peninsula costs close to $20,000. A week at a good camp on New Brunswick’s Miramichi River goes for $4,000.
The Margaree, however, is public, like all salmon rivers in Nova Scotia. (The Margaree salmon season runs from June 1 to Oct. 31.) The river can get crowded, but anglers share the water by moving through the pools in an affable conga line — a cast, a swing of the fly and a step downstream — so that everyone gets a shot at the prime salmon lies. The pressure certainly makes the angling more difficult, but, like skiers in the eastern United States, Margaree salmon anglers work with what they’ve got.
At the hub of much of the activity is Alex Breckenridge, the owner of the Tying Scotsman, the only full-service fly shop in the area. Breckenridge, with his glasses perched on the tip of his nose, ties flies to match the colors of the fall — deep red marabou streamers and bright orange shrimp patterns. He moved here from Ayrshire, Scotland, in 2003 and opened his shop two years ago. “This river is so accommodating,” he said. “All you need is a license and a place to stay.”
Like many, though, Breckenridge worries about the future of Atlantic salmon. A witches’ brew of maladies — including overharvest, habitat degradation and climate change — has caused a precipitous 30-year decline in worldwide Atlantic salmon populations. The species is now listed as endangered in the United States and is extinct on some rivers in southern Nova Scotia.
The Margaree has not been immune to the troubles. But angling organizations, like the international Atlantic Salmon Federation and the local Margaree Salmon Association, have taken steps to try to mitigate the decline. Recent measures on the Margaree include attempts at habitat restoration and a mandated catch-and-release policy on the river.
The declines in the runs have made some wistful for years past. But Gaines and Child shun the nostalgia. “Every week up here, and every day on the river, grants you a new chance,” Child said.
That optimism is a necessary trait for Atlantic salmon anglers. Its adherents are practiced in the art of rejection. The enigmatic species has been called “the fish of 1,000 casts” for good reason. (Atlantic salmon do not feed when they enter freshwater; many believe they strike flies out of some instinct developed as a juvenile in rivers.) Some anglers endure long stretches without catching a fish — I’d gone a full two weeks on the Margaree over the summer without even a strike.
It’s certainly not a sport for everyone, especially those with a steady iPhone habit. For others, though, the patient, repetitive process — and the ability to simultaneously daydream and pay close attention to your fly — is the entire point. Yvon Chouinard, the founder of Patagonia and an avid Atlantic salmon fisherman, has likened salmon fishing to being stoned.
I’m firmly in Chouinard’s camp: The process is more important than the result. Still, on the last evening of my October trip, I was going on three weeks without a fish. What I wanted more than anything was to feel the pull of an Atlantic salmon — a jolt, always unexpected, like shaking hands with an overeager Texan.
I walked down to the lower river, tied on one of Breckenridge’s red-and-yellow marabou flies and began to cast. On my third swing, my fly suddenly stopped. The water frothed as the salmon leapt twice, completely clearing the surface of the river. Eventually, I tailed her and held her steady in the current, up to my elbows in the water. Her back was lightly bronzed, her flanks silvery. It was getting dark quickly and the air had chilled. My ritual of the fall was at its end. The salmon, with a flick of her strong tail, shot upstream, continuing on with hers.